Not too long ago, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Jonathan Lethem, author, essayist, and music fan, to talk rock and roll, writing, and band dynamics. His new book, You Don't Love Me Yet (Doubleday), came out in March, and follows a fictional just-about-to-be-famous rock band through rehearsals and love affairs in modern-day LA. He wrapped up a multi-city American book tour in April--on some dates, local rock bands opened for him, playing songs they had written based on the fictional band's lyrics. Since I'm freakishly obsessed with music, writing, and the intersection of the two, it was truly interesting to hear Lethem's take on the situation. Here's what resulted (and, for what it's worth, he gets the band stuff right...):
On the back of one-year-old Brooklyn-based rock band The Night Time's freshly-pressed single "Monster Eyes" (B-side: "Astronaut Food"), under a photograph of a glittery heart on a stick entwined by the stems of two pink roses, is printed: "Lyrics by Jonathan Lethem and The Night Time. Music by The Night Time." These days, Lethem, 43, best known as a prolific novelist (Motherless Brooklyn, The Fortress of Solitude) and MacArthur Fellowship recipient, is moonlighting as a rock lyricist. Or, at least, his characters are.
You Don't Love Me Yet follows a fictional, young, and nameless LA rock band through rehearsals, songwriting sessions, intra-band hookups and breakups, and their one big show (at an avant-garde event, called Aparty, where the audience wears headphones and dances to their own music mixes while the band plays, very quietly). Band members Matthew (beautiful, simple lead singer), Denise (keep-it-all-together drummer), Bedwin (mad genius guitarist/songwriter), and Lucinda (beautiful, complex bassist) are the book's main characters. They embody "that unformed posturing phase of life" that Lethem says he also experienced as a twenty-something living the Bay Area in the late 1980s and early 1990s, listening to Big Star and The Feelies and Yo La Tengo, three of his favorite bands, and playing the role of lead singer in a nameless band. "I can't sing and I can't play an instrument. We played a couple of friends' parties. So, it was the most embarrassing and inconsequential thing possible."
It seems inevitable that Lethem would eventually write a novel about music, even though he calls writing about music "a kind of famously impossible pursuit." A self-proclaimed "music consumer" of both recorded music and music writing, he has tried his hand at the impossible, writing lengthy pieces about Bob Dylan and James Brown for Rolling Stone, several essays about music (collected in his book The Disappointment Artist), and a 12-page liner notes section in The Fortress of Solitude. He has written lyrics for friends' bands at a steady pace since his Bay Area days. In 2002, his novel Motherless Brooklyn inspired musician Deb Talan to write a song for the first annual Songs Inspired By Literature International Songwriting Competition. Talan's song, "Tell Your Story Walking," won.
When I meet Lethem at a cafe in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, where he grew up and now lives with his wife, filmmaker Amy Barrett, he has just returned from delivering his keynote address at the Experience Music Project Pop Conference in Seattle, Washington, in conjunction with his national book tour. Like a rock star, he's 45 minutes late.
"I'm so sorry," he says, lowering into the neo-gothic throne-like chair and unzipping his dark blue ribbed sweater to reveal a green T-shirt. His graying-at-the-temples dark brown wavy hair is longish--just this side of rock and roll. Lethem talks freely and passionately about music and writing. About his attempt to intersect them in You Don't Love Me Yet, he says, "I may have added to the legacy of failure in that pursuit. It's impossible to make a book like a pop artifact. It resisted at every level. But I tried to make it springy and catchy and short and ridiculous, and I hope kind of lovable, sort of like a single, if a novel could ever be like a single."
His attempt to write a hit song was much harder for him than it was for his character, Bedwin, who writes the band's hit song, "Monster Eyes," in one 10-page rehearsal session. In the book, "Monster Eyes" exists only as a set of lyric fragments and descriptions of the songwriting session that yielded it and of the legendary performance at the Aparty. As Lethem wrote the song fragments, he didn't have a specific song in mind. "This is what people are always surprised to hear. Obviously, I can think something's closer or further from the general ballpark of what I was thinking. But I really don't have a tune in my head." So he went in search of tunes for the song fragments in You Don't Love Me Yet via the Promiscuous Materials section of his website, inviting bands to complete the lyrics and write and record the songs from his novel. "People kept asking. They'd say, 'Well, what do the songs sound like?' and I'd have to confess that really all I had was on the page. I'm just so resolutely not a musician. I can't make up melodies." Several bands did make up melodies, and submitted them to the Promiscuous Materials Project. "I was surprised by a bunch of them, delightfully." In his opinion, The Night Time's version of "Monster Eyes" got closest to his idea of the song. "It's kind of like a little hit song of the mind. There ought to be a hook, and those guys did find one. And they're sort of cute and young in the right way. Cute like adorable."
That's why he asked The Night Time to open for him when he read with his friend George Saunders at the Housing Works Bookstore in SoHo, soon after You Don't Love Me Yet was published. According to Rebecca Roulette, the bespectacled and indeed adorable 26-year-old lead singer of The Night Time (who approached Lethem after a reading at BAM in February 2006, handed him her demo CD and said, "It's sooooo cool that you're writing about a band!"), the band's experience of recording "Monster Eyes" and "Astronaut Food" and opening for Lethem at two readings--Roulette calls it "The Lethem Experience"--has been "the most exposure the band's ever had. We pressed about 50 copies of the single and sold maybe 15 or 20."
Lethem's book tour included several dates similar to the Housing Works reading, where bands performed "Monster Eyes" before he took the stage, at the kind of bookstores "where half of the staff is probably in a rock and roll band already." The Brookline Booksmith, near Boston, announced the gig as a competition for local bands, which delighted Lethem. "That's what the song was supposed to be--kind of viral." Presently, 18 songs from You Don't Love Me Yet by 16 different bands are available on his website.
As Lethem and I leave the cafe, he says, "I wanted to give you a copy of the mix CD I made to go along with the book, but I forgot it. Come by my place and I'll get you one." We walk the block and a half to his apartment, budding trees dropping pink petals on our heads, and I wait outside of his brownstone while he fetches the CD. He returns a few minutes later, CD in hand, and runs down the stairs, opening the jewel case as he descends. He opens it. "So here it is. With liner notes written by Bedwin."